The end and failure of the EU relocation scheme (guest blog by Rory O’Keeffe)

The official end of the EU’s refugee relocation programme, begun in September 2015, came on 26 September.

Despite setting its own target – of 160,000 refugees to be moved from Greece, Italy and Turkey to other EU member states (106,000 in total from Italy and Greece: 66,400 from Greece; 39,600 from Italy) – and giving itself two years to meet the target, only 28,769 people have actually been moved from Italian and Greek camps to other nations.

Finland has accepted 94 per cent of the number of refugees it was asked to, and Ireland has taken 84 per cent.

The next ‘best’ performers are Malta (77 per cent) and Luxembourg, which has taken 68.5 per cent of the number of refugees it was asked to. Germany has accepted the highest number of refugees – 7,852 – but this is in fact just 28.5 per cent of the number it was asked to take.

Before we move onto the worst performing countries, we should note once more that the EU set its own targets on this crisis, and deliberately set the bar extremely low.

For example, ONLY refugees from states with an already high rate of acceptance were to be included: effectively those from Syria and Eritrea.

In Greece, this led almost immediately to divisions and in some cases recriminations between communities in refugee camps, and to the effective ‘disappearance’ of thousands of Afghan refugees across the Greek mainland, as they realised that the door had effectively been closed to them for legal passage to other EU countries – both of these outcomes were in their own way disastrous, and ultimately and easily avoidable, because the EU – as a continent-wide political bloc, and the wealthiest such bloc ever to have existed – is almost uniquely well-positioned to respond and react to a refugee situation such as the one which is still taking place today.

Not only that, it gave itself two years to organise and carry out the programme. This was far too long, as refugee camps are supposed to be places where people stay for – at the longest – a month and everyone from humanitarian organisations, to government health bodies (for example Greece’s KEELPNO) and even the EU’s own advisory bodies, agree that living in refugee camps is detrimental to the mental and physical health of those trapped within them.

But even having given itself a ludicrously long period to respond – a period in which people’s health deteriorated all over Greece and Italy (as well as in Turkey) – it still managed only a fraction of what it had said it would achieve.

In total, so far, 19,747 people have been moved from Greece in the last two years: more than that number have arrived in the first nine months of 2017 alone. And 8,985 have been moved from Italy, where much more than TEN TIMES that number of people have arrived since 1 January this year. The official closing date of the programme has now passed. The scheme has been an embarrassing and abject failure.

We can note that Denmark and the UK point-blank refused to take part at all, that Hungary and Poland have accepted a total of zero refugees, and that Austria (15 people in two years), Slovakia (16) and the Czech Republic (12) have made a mockery of the entire process. And of course, the response of those states is a part of the reason that this scheme has so abjectly collapsed.

But that would be to miss the point, which is that this is an EU-wide failure. When only three states – one of them Malta, which has accepted 148 people in total – have achieved even as much as three-quarters of a target which was deliberately set at levels where all states could achieve them with ease, there is a serious problem.

Rory O’Keeffe

Refugee Support for the Rohingya

We’ve been watching the situation in the Rakhine province of Myanmar/ Burma with rising alarm. Often described as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohnigya people are a stateless Muslim minority who have suffered discrimination and violence for decades. Anyone watching the news recently will have seen the population experiencing a new tragedy of historic proportions and heard some horrific stories of violence.

Around 400,000 men, women and children have fled to Bangladesh in just 3 weeks. We are clearly witnessing an enormous humanitarian crisis in one of the poorest countries of the world.

We are committed to helping refugees and internally displaced people in the greatest need and are determined to do something to help.

We have made contact with some of the key actors on the ground there and with a crisis of such proportions they are obviously struggling to cope. As a small NGO we are in no position to help everyone but we know we can help some of them with the essentials of life, delivered with dignity.

We have the opportunity. We have a line of communication to senior officials within the Bangladeshi government and Unicef. We have our experience in Calais and Greece. And we have the expertise of two highly experienced and capable humanitarian workers who have been central to our latest shop innovation in Greece and agreed to lead our mission in Bangladesh.

Daniel Mendies has been working in 20 camps across Greece for some of the leading agencies and this builds on a long career of humanitarian work in Kathmandu (children’s home), Afghanistan (landmine victims), Peshawar (free medical clinic), Uttarakhand (flood victims), Nepal (relief to 50,000 households) and Nuwakot (food distribution to 18,000 households). He also helped to found a Nepali think tank (Sangam Institute), is a conflict photographer and fluent speaker of all local languages.

Angus MacKinnon has lived in Myanmar as a student, a volunteer, a journalist, and a development worker (e.g. in Yangon after hurricane Nargis and in and Mong La) and has a thorough understanding of the social and ethnic mix. He has worked in Thailand (Mae Sot, Mae Sai, Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camps), with refugees in Malaysia and the United States, and on development initiatives in Nepal, Pakistan, Ecuador and Southern Mexico.

They will spend October laying the groundwork for our operation which we will launch in November.

So we have the opportunity and the expertise. The other key element is the funding. You can help by donating. The need is enormous. Refugee camps are overflowing and makeshift camps are being set up. There is not enough food or clean water. Many have conflict injuries and people are scared.

Please be a part of the international response to help people in desperate circumstances by donating here:

Support the Rohingya through BT MyDonate

Rest assured that every penny will go towards helping the Rohingya people (and myDonate has 0% commission). We will be building on our strong record of delivering aid with dignity to help those in greatest need.

Extraordinary people standing with refugees

We are totally reliant on volunteers to deliver our services on the camps and they do an amazing job.

We also want to recognise publicly the many individuals and organisations who help us with everything else we do by offering their talents and resources for free:

  • Chris Pink – created a customised database solution for us to manage the 1000+ volunteers who have contacted us and is always available to keep it running smoothly
  • Ellie Kostick, Letitia Garcia, Sarah Thorne, Paula Tamarit, Emilie Ruddick – who manage all the volunteer applications and interviews
  • Elsie Harrison – who runs our follow-up volunteer feedback programme, all anonymised and critical to our continuous improvement (74% rate the experience as Excellent and 21% as Good)
  • Frederica Cerqueiro – who has grown our Instagram to over 2000 followers and also supports volunteer fundraising
  • Andrew Robillard – after serving as one of our long-term volunteers is now growing our Twitter account
  • Origin8Creative – run by talented designer Andy Mattock who has created our logo, T-shirts, posters, business cards and leaflets
  • Sabcat – that prints out volunteer and donor T-shirts at cost
  • Rhys Evans – digital whizz who tweaks our online performance and online marketing
  • Gooroo – creative and advertising genius Bob Maddams who has created and edited our early videos and came up with our well-loved #aidwithdignity hashtag
  • Al Berro – Victor Suarez volunteered on the camp and created one of our videos. Then he came back (at very short notice) and created 4 more!
  • Vervate – Susi Doherty edits and sends out our important monthly newsletter that gets mailed to 2,000 of our supporters
  • Ian Campbell – worked incredibly hard in the early days to take all those paper receipts and get our finances in order
  • Bea Shrewsbury – one of our trustees who has revolutionised our book-keeping and finances with Xero so that we are now right on top of all spending and reporting
  • Mike Cooke and Rana Toukan – our other two trustees who are such a wise source of support
  • Brandwatch – a dynamic software company that allows us the use of all the facilities, surrounded by friendly and talented people in their very well-equipped UK office
  • Manthos Hotel, Marathia Hotel, Ionian Hotel, Dmitrio, Yannis, Giorgios, Eva, Gary and Panagiota Farmaki in Greece – that have gone well beyond the call of duty to care for the welfare of our volunteers and help us navigate the (complicated) Greek system

And as we prepare for our speaking tour across the UK in October, this is also a good opportunity to recognise the many groups and individuals who have organised in their communities to raise funds, collect items and raise awareness in support of refugees.

To all of these people and the many others who have supported us – thank you. We could not have done what we have done without you.

Their only reward is to help and that is both humbling and inspiring.

Together we are stronger.

Piecing together some normality

This week, a man popped into the shop at LM Village just before lunch to buy some fresh bananas and tinned mushrooms. Just before he paid, he spotted some mayonnaise and added that to his basket. He handed over 100 points in Refugee Support tokens, received 5 points change, exchanged a couple of pleasantries with one of our volunteers and left.

It’s everyday experiences like this we are trying to create in the shattered life of a refugee camp. What could be more normal than going to the corner shop to pick up a couple of things and making an impulse purchase? It is an experience that many of us take for granted and one of those things that the parents on the camp used to do all the time. Many of the kids will never have known that life was like that.

A journey in dignity

When we first started providing food from our shop in Alexandreia back in April 2016 we knew that a shop environment would offer some dignity but used to provide a standard basket of goods to every family to increase their food security. This beat handing it out of the back of a van but people had no choice and we decided what to give them. People are individuals of course and it is not surprising that we had complaints. Some wanted olive oil, some didn’t want coffee, some only wanted fresh vegetables.

In October, we moved to a points system which allowed people to choose whatever they wanted and we could stock the shop with a much bigger selection of things. But it did mean that they could only visit the shop one day a week and they had to spend all their points on that visit. Typically, people would play around with the last few items so that they used every one of their points. Also they could only pick up fresh fruit and vegetables once a week. In summer, these need to be used quickly whereas we are buying fresh several times a week from a local grocer.

With our tokens, people can now come to the shop whenever it is open, spend however many of their points they want and could even save the money for a bigger spend next week. But what it really does is give people with little control over their futures, some control over their everyday lives.

Implementing the tokens

We already had a points system so this was an easy transition. We just needed to keep it simple and keep it professional.

– Our designer Andy at Origin8Creative created the different tokens in denominations of 5, 10 and 20 because a typical household has about 400 points and all item prices range from 5-90 points.

– We printed them at our mint (a local printer) on different colour paper for each denomination to help with clarity. And heavier weight paper for durability.

– We printed enough for 3 weeks of shopping so we had a good reserve and the vast majority are 20s as we only need 10s and 5s to give change.

Knowing the household composition of each family we made up the money packs for each one and distributed them with an explanation on the Monday for them to start using on Tuesday.

– We extended opening hours in the shop to Friday (but strictly only open from 11am-1pm and 3pm-5pm).

– We set up a monitoring and evaluation system: points distributed each week, points spent per day, products sold each week, points not used each week
– We bought a small cash box to act as a till in the shop. By starting each day with 100 points in the till, we can easily count how many have been spent in that day

There are some concerns we had to think about and we will be monitoring
– Counterfeiting: the design is simple but intricate enough and on coloured paper that we are pretty sure the effort woud greatly outweigh the reward
– Theft: it’s always possible that someone might decide to help themselves to few weeks worth of tokens but we could reprint the currency to invalidate the old ones
– Black market: they may be used to buy things or services from each other on the camp but the amount is small and they already have some cash

Dignity first

The first week has been a huge success and we are already planning to roll it out in Filippiada camp.

We’re still on a journey to create as much dignity and normality as possible for people who have lost so much. Their stories about the war and their journeys are harrowing and after all that, they are now living in difficult circumstances in limbo while they wait for decisions made by distant agencies about where they will go next.

We will never stop doing what we can to make life a little more dignified.

Thinking about Chios…

From the island of Chios, you can clearly see Turkey just 5 miles off the east coast and it is hard not to look at this narrow sea channel without thinking about the hundreds of thousands who have crowded into dinghies and attempted the journey. At the height of the summer season, these thoughts jar with the thousands of tourists who are now sunbathing and having fun on the beaches.

This shocking contrast is also played out in the port. Just around the corner from cafes and souvenir shops, about 800 refugees are tucked into the moat of the castle, living in cramped and depressing unofficial camp of Souda. Unless you went looking for it, you’d never see it. And unless you went looking, you’d never see the official camp of Vial about 5 miles up the mountain with another 1,000 refugees.

We spent two days there to see if there was anything we could do to help. There are already hard-working organisations and individuals making a difference, many of them generously giving their time to help us understand the situation. From what we heard, the challenges are daunting.

While clothing does not appear to be in high demand, there is a clear need for improved nutrition. Boredom, frustration and a sense of hopelessness are traumatising already traumatised people so mental health is poor. With the withdrawal of key EU funding, many of the large NGOs are pulling out at the end of July. After over two years and the consequent impact on the tourist trade, sympathy on the island is in short supply. Although continually refreshed by a steady stream of enthusiastic and well-intentioned volunteers, many of the smaller NGOs are exhausted. Humanitarian efforts do not appear to be consistently co-ordinated.

There is some access to Souda but access to Vial is highly restricted. It is hard to see how we can carry out fair and dignified distributions without a presence in Vial or at least regular, unimpeded access. We are lucky to have the support of our donors and know that we can rely on some great volunteers so now need to work with the authorities to demonstrate how we can make their lives easier as well as support the refugees with essential aid.

We have come away with some despair at Europe’s treatment of refugees but a determination to do everything in our power to help. Even small actions can have a big impact.

The warehouse is where dignity begins

The warehouse is an essential link in our supply chain – to receive large deliveries and quality control the items before they are distributed on the camp.

With an ever-changing volunteer workforce, we need a system that is easy to understand, maintains consistency and maximises efficiency. Having a founder who is a logistics expert has helped but as with everything we do, volunteers come with their own ideas that mean we are continuously improving the operation.

This video is from our former warehouse in Alexandreia and now we are putting the same systems in place at our new warehouse near Ioannina.

The power of volunteers is huge

We can’t do anything without volunteers.

We’ve seen about 450 now from California to New Zealand, from 15 years of age to 78, from all walks of life, all united in a commitment to support the refugees in Greece. What we offer is a system that allows them to get started straightaway and help give some dignity. Every volunteer has built on the previous one to increase and improve what we do and each one can leave knowing that they have made a difference.

We ask volunteers to pay for their own travel, accommodation and subsistence, to come for betweeen 2-4 weeks and to be prepared to get involved with whatever is needed. No special skills are needed – they just need to have a ready smile and want to help.

We’re immensely proud of them and you can read some of their stories here.

If you would like to volunteer, you can start the process here.

Anna: Queen of Hospitality at the best hotel in the world

Over the last 15 months, we’ve worked with some amazing people and right at the top of the list is Anna, owner of the Hotel Manthos. It’s no exaggeration to say that the hotel was critical to our success in Alexandreia.

Volunteers need somewhere safe and comfortable to stay but Anna did so much more for everyone who stayed there to make them feel part of a loving family, for us as an organisation with our constant demands and for the refugees from the camp. Nothing was too much trouble and always with a smile.

This family run hotel was perfect. Being close to the camp, economical, always open, and with a large restaurant which we took over every morning for our briefing sessions was what we needed. What made it special is how Anna but and her wonderful team – Vaya, Tasos, Sakis and Yannis – made us feel at home.

Teaching Greek, treating us to special Christmas and Easter celebrations, countless birthday cakes, preparing breakfast, looking after people when they were unwell, getting us the best deals, late night whiskey, asking after family, storing our stuff, the list goes on. It was a second home.

Anna hates the idea that we had a business relationship because she felt like we were guests in her family home doing everything she could to give us the best in Greek hospitality.

It was her birthday in February and we managed to return the birthday cake favour but what was really special was seeing her spend the whole day getting messages from all the volunteers whose hearts had been touched by this amazing lady.

Part of what we do is investing in the local economy and we can measure that. If only we could measure the good that is generated by good people doing good things for others.

Distributing with dignity

Using points to shop in the camp mini-markets is all about #aidwithdignity. We can stock whatever different individuals want and they can choose whatever they want from the wide range on offer. This takes control out of our hands and puts it into theirs.

After several frustrating months telling people what they could and couldn’t have, our points system turned that whole experience on its head. Giving people ‘points’ to spend makes the whole shopping experience more normal.

All we had to do was make the space available to them, ensure it was stocked with what the range of things they wanted and count the points. Living on a refugee camp with few or no resources can be humiliating. Not only does this make distribution more dignified for the residents, it’s a happier experience for the volunteers.

Excellent video production from Al Berro Producciones

Creating the language school

Creating the classrooms at Alexandreia is one of our proudest achievements. Thank you to everyone who helped.

In October 2016 we built 2 classrooms for the Ministry of Education to teach the kindergarten kids but when they couldn’t find the teachers we worked with others to create a language school.

We have now handed control of the school over the NRC – the agency responsible for education on the camp. It’s often been the case that small, nimble organisations like ours can get things started quickly until the larger organisations can mobilise their resources.